Wednesday, August 26, 2015

It's not only government agencies who can survey their clients

There's an interest case emerging where an Australian Defense Force veteran has surveyed a large number of clients of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and identified a very different view of the department to that claimed in its own survey.

Before idespread internet and social media use, surveying a large number of agency clients or citizens on their views of an agency's performance was an expensive, difficult and time consuming undertaking.

I recall conducting surveys in the early 1990s before the World Wide Web, on behalf of large fast moving goods manufacturers, to establish customer views of their products. It was a slow, expensive and complex process that required significant casual manpower making thousands of phone calls to get a reasonable sample size of responses.

First it required contact details for each client - something that generally only the agency itself held centrally, and this wasn't shared for privacy reasons.

Beyond this, the process of designing and putting a survey into the field was an expensive undertaking, requiring specialised researcher and either a mass mailout (with a paper survey and reply paid envelope) or the employment of large numbers of casual phone researchers to physically call all the potential respondents to seek their feedback.

Finally, the analysis of surveys was a complex matter, with data needing to be accurately input into relatively primitive analysis tools. I recall using SPSS in one of its earliest incarnations. It was powerful but very finicky and operators had to essentially write raw, command line, database calls in order to segment research data in useful ways.

Today this process has entirely changed, making it far easier and cheaper to survey large number of people and rapidly analyze and report on their views.

As a result it isn't only large organisations who can now effectively qualify and survey significant numbers of people - individuals who mistrust organizational survey results can do so too, potentially challenging the results that organisations claim by identifying issues that organisations would prefer to keep on the lowdown.

We saw this kind of citizen action with the Vodafail survey and report back in 2012, where an individual who was upset with evasive corporate claims and a lack of service improvement, marshaled 50,000 reports of issues with the Vodafone national mobile phone network through his social media connections and providing a damning analysis of the situation to government authorities.

The actions saw Vodafone widely scrutinised by the public and authorities and the company was forced to change its behaviour (and leadership) to address the concerns, losing almost half a million customers while this took place.

Tellingly the company has survived, even thrived, as a result of changing its engagement approaches, but was referring publicly to its efforts to lay the issue to bed as recently as a few months ago, vowing at the end of March 2015 to 'reverse Vodafail' and become Australia's best mobile provider.

Back then I doubt many government agencies were worried that a similar event could occur to them - that an individual or unaligned group could, or would, conduct research on an agency's clients and publicly release an independent view that contradicted the agency's own research on its service standards and how the agency was perceived by those it served.

I did flag the potential issue in this blog back in June 2013, highlighting that we now live in an age where an individual can 'pierc the veil of silence' and expose an agency to criticism and scrutiny in ways it had never faced before.

Now this has happened for real, with an individual conducting a survey about the Department of Veterans' (DVA) conduct that provides a very uncomfortable view of military veterans' experiences with the department - a view that contradicts the extremely high satisfaction rates that the department itself claims in its research.

The individual, Angus Sim. a veteran of Iraq and East Timor, had had a rough personal experience with the DVA. So when the department released a glowing and entirely positive report on how clients felt when dealing with the DVA, and refused to release any negative comments at all about the department,  he felt that the DVA's own research was not providing a true view of how veterans really felt, and was potentially misleading both the public and the elected government.

So using the Web 2.0 tools at his disposal, Angus set up a survey for veterans using SurveyMonkey, and a Facebook group where vets could connect. He also created a petition to marshall support and filmed a short video for YouTube to communicate the issue he was attempting to address.

Angus hen marshaled support through his networks online, getting the survey featured on several websites, such as ADSO, and in a number of social media groups frequented by Aussie veterans.

He even reached out to the politician seen as most supportive of veteran affairs, and had Jacquie Lambie tweet a link.

As a result Angus has attracted over 900 responses to his survey thus far, and has already conducted preliminary analysis that suggests that there are many veterans who do not feel as positive about the DVA as the department's own research suggests.

The survey analysis is now starting to filter into the media - which means it is likely to attract even more participation from veterans.

Representative or not, this survey will impact on the trust placed in the DVA to report accurate sentiment to its political masters and the public. It could damage the ability of the DVA to carry out its job and dent or even end the careers of public servants, as the Vodafail report did for Vodafone management.

The DVA research that found 90% satisfaction levels and for which the DVA only published positive comments from respondents, cost over $170,000 to conduct.

Other than his time, Angus would not have spent a cent on his citizen-led research, using free online tools to build his network, collect responses and analyst the results.

Keep in mind that Angus did not take these steps because he wishes to damage or destroy the DVA. He took them because his experience cr did not match the DVA's published perspective on the experience of veterans. He wants the DVA to see and acknowledge its failings, to advocate to government for the resources to do right by Australian veterans and to deliver better outcomes for their clients.

More often than not when citizens come out in opposition to agencies they are simply seeking a fair go, not to ridicule or damage the reputations of agencies, governments and senior officials.

Agencies need to take this as constructive criticism, not as an attack on their existence. Ignoring, downplaying or rejecting criticism will only result in an escalation and actual damage to agencies, where as working constructively with individuals and groups fostering public accountability can result in improved outcome and satisfaction.

This is no longer a theoretical situation for government agencies, that an individual or small group could run 'counter research' where they perceive government research to be implausible or absent.

Every agency and council needs to be mindful that, at any time, their constituents, clients and stakeholders could organise and present a dissenting view which doesn't reflect the view the organisations itself wishes to project.

Public agencies are on notice - citizens are organised, watchful and they want to help, whether the agencies want their help or not.

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